President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s claim that the May 10 elections have restored the power of the ballot as an instrument of democratic change, in contrast to the “power of the street,” was as specious and wishful as her claim that the same elections would lead to unity, poverty alleviation, and progress.

What is more likely is that what happened in the May elections has not only undermined the ballot as the major instrument of regime change in this country. It might have also strengthened faith not only in People Power but also in other extra-constitutional options including coups, uprisings, riots and the like. These possibilities seriously undermine the possibility of the unity, much less the progress, Mrs. Arroyo alluded to in her Independence Day speech last Saturday.

By “the power of the street” Mrs. Arroyo was apparently referring not only to your common, run –of- the- mill, assembly-line street protests, but also to EDSA, or People Power, 1 and 2.

“People Power” has a singular meaning to Filipinos. Although adventurists, plain hooligans, and politicians of various stripes and agendas prefer to interpret it purely as the massing of people in enough numbers to intimidate their opponents no matter what the cause, it does have a larger meaning.

As Philippine experience demonstrates, People Power refers to the extra-legal recourse of removing unpopular leaders from office through direct citizen action. This definition emphasizes its democratic character, but also implies some degree of understanding of issues on the part of those who provide the warm bodies. In that sense it means more than what its name suggests.

But People Power is also an admission of the flaws of the Philippine electoral system, and of the failure of the means of redress supposedly available to the citizenry.

The electoral system was in shambles in 1986, given Marcos’ control over it. The same system had been in a state of ruin since 1969 when Marcos was reelected.
The declaration of martial law in 1972 buried the system; it did not kill it.

Although dead and buried, the system was more or less restored in 1987. It did not prevent, and in fact seemed to have made inevitable, the election of Joseph Estrada in 1998, just as it did not prevent the reelection of Marcos in 1969.

The “reelection” of Marcos in 1968 and in 1986 could not be entirely blamed on an uninformed electorate, but on fraud. Estrada’s in 1998 could be. It didn’t seem right that anyone should be elected on popularity alone. It wasn’t—Estrada soon proved himself unequal to the tasks of running the country.

While Estrada did not cheat and Marcos did, his case, as much as Marcos’, demonstrated that the system not only allowed the cunning to manipulate and corrupt it. It also allowed, even encouraged, the election of the unqualified.

While the same system did provide legal means of redress in 1986 as in 2001, those means proved unyielding in practice. In 1986 there was the Commission on Elections—but Marcos had it in his pocket. There was also the Batasang Pambansa—but Marcos cohorts dominated it. Marcos was thus proclaimed, regardless of the fraud, terrorism and black propaganda that accompanied the February 1986 elections. That left those opposed to Marcos no other recourse but to take to the streets.

In Estrada’s case, the legal means of correcting the electorate’s 1998 error was impeachment, and a trial in the Senate. While against all odds and despite the numerical superiority of his camp in the House of Representatives the articles of impeachment had made it to the Senate, the same superiority in numbers—which, incidentally, some of the same people in the congressional canvass are now complaining about, except that this time they’re in the minority–put an end to the Senate trial. This led to People Power 2, which resulted in the extra-constitutional ouster of Joseph Estrada, and Mrs. Arroyo’s assuming the presidency.

Odd that the chief beneficiary of “the power of the street” in 2001 should now be rejecting it. It is odder still that the one person whom her detractors insist subverted the power of the ballot most last May should be extolling it.

In one sense, the country’s current troubles can be traced to the cataclysm of 2001. Political analysts had anticipated some of the consequences of ousting Estrada and replacing him with Arroyo. Unfortunately there seemed to be no alternative to Mrs. Arroyo’s ascendancy, except three more years of the corruption and inefficiency of the Estrada watch.

Hindsight now says that Mrs. Arroyo’s three years have hardly been better. In 2001, however, she was mistakenly thought to be as potentially principled as she was popular. The presidency thus fell on Mrs. Arroyo’s lap without much effort on her part.

But what was significant was that, by making her President, People Power 2 gave Mrs. Arroyo three years in which to cultivate the advantages of incumbency in preparation for running in 2004. This was the exact reverse of a situation the Constitution seeks to prevent by barring a President from a second term.

Mrs. Arroyo’s incumbency and her access to government resources, agencies and facilities is at the core of claim, not solely being made by the Poe opposition, that large-scale fraud occurred before, during and after the May 10 elections. The machinery she put together was nothing more than a network in which, the distinction between her interests as a candidate and her duties as president having been erased, politicians and government bureaucrats including the police, the military, the Comelec, the executive departments and her allies in Congress were joined in the single-minded effort to assure her election.

To allegations of fraud, Mrs. Arroyo and company have responded with a chorus saying that those who allege fraud should file charges and allow the normal processes of legal redress to proceed. Meanwhile, they urge a speedy proclamation, relying for support on the middle-class repugnance for a Poe presidency, and its consequent willingness to ignore fraud.

Once proclaimed, it will be extremely difficult to dislodge Mrs. Arroyo through the usual avenue of filing a protest before the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal. As Miriam Defensor Santiago has pointed out in her cynical advice to Poe to accept Mrs Arroyo’s alleged victory without protest, aside from the huge expense, a recount of the votes could also take an eternity—or at least a long enough time to make any protest under existing laws as futile as trying to roll back a tsunami.

Two things are evident so far. First, there’s enough smoke—incidents, reports, documents, etc.—to suggest that fraud did occur in the last elections. Second, even if fraud did occur, any protest after a proclamation will not prosper. But there is also the third probability that whatever the opposition does during the canvassing, Mrs. Arroyo will be proclaimed, and that, thanks to the opposition’s fielding a candidate they cannot abide, the middle-classes will willy-nilly allow it without too much protest.

Under those circumstances, an Arroyo presidency will be tainted enough to be perennially unstable. This will not be due alone to whether Poe’s constituencies will sit by and allow Mrs. Arroyo to take her seat, or to remain on it. Other sectors as well are likely to be emboldened to resort to “the power of the street” by what could become a general perception that she has no mandate.

As the entire country realized in May, 2001, the use of that power for regime change is not only potentially dangerous. It is also a quick fix—a slap-dash solution to the fatal flaws of the political system, which invite precisely the kind of response we saw in 1986 and 2001.

The Philippines urgently needs lasting and viable solutions to those flaws, among them an electoral system in which fraud, corruption and terrorism would be at a minimum, and in which mistakes can be corrected within a legal framework. Unfortunately, only a government that is legitimate in the people’s eyes as well as in law can even begin to seriously consider, much less implement, those solutions.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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